The third time that I floated the Rio Grande River through Boquillas Canyon, things went more smoothly. Since that was my first time to lead an actual group into the backcountry, that seemingly simple fact was an especially good thing. There were twelve of us on that particular trip, paddling two per aluminum canoe. We made the 33 mile excursion down the Rio Grande on the east side of Big Bend National Park over the course of three days, with two nights spent camping out along the way, had only one simple “getting knocked out of the canoe” situation and a straightforward shuttle at the end. Mostly, all we did go with the flow, soak up sun, gaze out at the mighty Sierra del Carmen mountains rising above us off to the southeast in Mexico and ponder the magnificence and complexities of the monstrous cliff walls which engulfed us much of the time, making us all feel mighty small.
Things hadn’t been that way on my first two trips. It wasn’t that the river, spectacular canyon walls and the looming bluish massif of the Sierra del Carmen were not there on those trips, it’s just that there’d been other things to think about.
I went there the first time with Coulter, a guy that I’d gone to junior high and high school with, just after our freshmen years in college. We put in our “cost less than $100” inflatable rubber raft near the small Mexican village of Boquillas, a few miles upriver of the actual canyon. Leading up to the trip we’d wasted little time reading guide books and were not concerned by the fact that civilization as we knew it pretty much ended at the town of Boquillas. For whatever reason, we were confident that we’d planned it all meticulously, although that was not actually the case. We were, however, prepared— which ended up being our saving grace.
There were a couple of things that we did know about the trip as we pushed the raft off from the riverbank into the lazy current. First, was that we were headed into one of the three big canyons (Santa Elena, Mariscal and Boquillas) along the Rio Grande, as it flows through Big Bend National Park. And second, was that there were no big rapids for us to worry about. The latter was especially important since neither of us had much in the way of river or whitewater experience, other than what we’d garnered during our boyhoods as we occasionally navigated the muddy creeks of north central Texas.
Once out in the water, the current soon grabbed us and swept us past the point of no return. It was a mysterious and magical realm that we entered as humongous rocks and cliffs suddenly rose both to our right and left. At that point, we realized that there was no more Mexico or United States. No Big Bend rangers, no parents and no one to ask. There was only the water, over 100 miles of mostly wild river, a warm breeze, rocks, sand, cane, buzzards soaring overhead, and mountains without people, in our new world.
We started in the afternoon and planned to go only a couple of hours into the canyon before finding a place to pitch our tent for that first night. We somehow knew enough to paddle more or less together and placed our fully loaded frame backpacks in the middle. We were amazed by how much weight the raft held and initially, at least, were pleased by how well it was all working out- and for less than $100.
We had to do little in the way of paddling, in order to move as fast as we dared. Essentially, we just kept the front of the raft pointed downstream while the river did the rest. By 5 pm, we felt the south breeze, which up until then had mostly been at our backs, begin to shift more to the east and change from a gentle breeze into a stiff one. The river made a sweeping turn to our left and as we emerged into yet another straightaway, the wind change became drastic and we were suddenly hit almost head-on by a brutal, sand-filled gale that almost completely stopped our forward progress.
Both of us dug our paddles deeply into the water and pulled for all we were worth in a drastic attempt just to move forward. After paddling for five minutes, we gauged our progress relative to an old tree trunk over on the shore, and noted that we’d at least not been blown upstream. If only we had a canoe, I thought, maybe we’d actually be going downstream.
By a stroke of luck, a large sand bar created the US side of the river right where we were, and amidst all of the paddling struggle, we were able to glance over and see some camping possibilities. We had planned to go further before stopping for the night and were hoping to find a nice grass covered flat spot for pitching our early day dome tent, but at that particular moment, we opted to go for whatever we could get, and it wasn’t a flat, grassy spot.
Thankfully, we were close to the shore and after a few minutes of complex paddling got ourselves close enough to the riverbank for Coulter to jump out with the intention of dragging us ashore. He held onto the bow line that we’d thankfully tied onto the front of the boat and pulled the whole rig, with me attached, ashore. Our first instinct was to use the raft as a combination wind break and shelter, but soon realized that it caught too much wind for that and then just focused on the need to securely anchor it to the ground to keep it from blowing away. I will say, that losing your boat out where we were, would suck, although we didn’t spend much time thinking about that while in the midst of the “camp set up in the wind” chaos.
After some struggle, we were able to tie the raft down to the big log that we’d used to check our progress. Once we felt good about that, we began looking for a good place to set up the tent. We recognized that we were quickly becoming overwhelmed by the wind and needed to get out of it, so became even less picky regarding where to set it up. We located a spot that was more or less level, although not particularly protected from the wind, pulled the 3-person tent out and went about the process of fighting the wind to put it up.
What should’ve taken only a few minutes, took considerably more, but we eventually did get it put up and almost miraculously, with the door facing away from the wind. As soon as it was ready to go, we climbed in and zipped ourselves inside. Even though we could hear the wind pounding outside, it was calm and there was no sand blowing inside, and so- for the moment, all was good.
Eventually, the wind subsided to the point where we could go outside and cook supper, although we opted for the no-cook meal that we’d brought along, just in case. The wind was not something I’d even considered, as I did whatever planning I did prior to the trip. While eating a mix of crackers, peanut butter, cheese and Oreos, I speculated about such things as what we would’ve done about supper had the wind not calmed down. And for the first time in my young life, I realized, that had that been the case, we would’ve probably done just what we were doing.
After the wind incident, the rest of the trip went flawlessly. A couple of days later we pulled the raft up onto the bank, just under the bridge at La Linda, and shuttled from there back into the park. A few days later, the two of us floated the middle of the three Big Bend canyons, Mariscal. Interestingly, we did something of a river rescue in the middle of that canyon. A group of four college guys had decided to float through it on a sail boat bottom and had issues negotiating the river feature known as the “Tight Squeeze”. We came upon them just as they were all being launched from their floating plank into the water just ahead of us. We ultimately pulled them all out of the river and into our raft and then dropped them safely off onto the shore. Afterward, as we drifted back out into the current we could hear them talking about what they were going to do “next time”. That was the last venture out onto the water for the “under $100 raft”, but we were pleased by how well it’d performed during it’s short, but eventful life.
So, that brings us to the next trip, which was my second. Several years after the wind trip and a few months before my first trip as a group leader, I did it with an old friend, whom I’ll call, Busby. Our plan was to do it as something of a dress rehearsal for the trip that we’d be leading a group of teenagers on, later that year. Again, it would’ve made sense to have many of the details worked out prior to our doing the exploratory excursion, but since that was what this particular trip was all about we planned to work through all of that as we went. I will say that we were at least doing it in the late spring when the water and weather were relatively warm. We also had a bombproof aluminum canoe with us that didn’t leak and we knew where our starting point was going to be. Other details, such as those related to the required shuttle at the take out point were a bit more ambiguous.
Things started off like clockwork. We made the six hour drive to the park and our put in location at Rio Grande Village as scheduled, arriving late afternoon with plenty of time to set up our tent and have supper before dark. We were fully energized and ready to go when we carried the canoe over to the water’s edge the next morning. With the boat in a shallow, calm backwater, we loaded our packs into the middle and then climbed in. We just sat on the bow and stern seats, given the relatively calm nature of the water, and eased out into the current.
The first few miles from Rio Grande Village, past Boquillas Crossing and on into the canyon is mellow, in a word. The terrain is relatively flat, with only the mountains off in the distance creating any sort of relief. The warm sun, predictable flow, lack of wind, and the fact that I’d done it before began conspiring early on to relax me. The canyon walls rose up sporadically and then magnificently as we entered the canyon. To better take it all in, I put my paddle down and laid back on my seat and the back of the canoe. Studying the seemingly perfectly orchestrated chaos of the rock overwhelmed my senses. River Cane grew in scattered, unlikely spots in the rocks where cracks and creases had been filled with bits of sand and dirt. It seemed to spring up everywhere where the river made a turn. Two Crows soared near the top of the massive rock, which in places rose directly out of the water and seemed to extend into the sky. All the while, the sun continued doing its work and since the water was so calm, I decided to just close my eyes for a moment and take a quick nap. That, it turns out, was a poorly thought out thing to do.
While I’d been conscious and controlling my end of the boat, everything had gone well. But apparently something changed once I drifted off into relaxed slumber. Bad timing, I suppose. Something, perhaps a new sound, sudden shift or abrupt change in speed, woke me abruptly and sent me springing into action, but I was a bit behind the curve. Busby was in the bow and doing what he could to keep us pointed downstream as we entered into a section of somewhat swifter current. He was struggling to keep us from turning broadside into the current, which, I knew, often leads a canoe to swamp or turn over.
I grabbed for my paddle, but a couple of miscues in my attempts to do so, delayed my action. Within a few seconds, I was able to slide back down onto the seat and finally got my paddle into the water. But, all of that happened just as the bow of the canoe veered abruptly to the left, sending us perpendicular to the current, which not unexpectedly, turned the boat over, dumping us into the river.
Our situation was not all that good, but after a quick survey of our immediate surroundings, I could see that at least the rapid that had created the problem was actually more of a riffle that soon disappeared; we were in the midst of a big, slow moving pool; that there was a big sandbar to our north where we could get out and reorganize ourselves and that our backpacks were still closed-up and just floating nearby. Things could’ve been worse, but they weren’t.
We were not on any sort of strict schedule, so we grabbed the canoe and our packs and drug them, along with ourselves, up onto the beach and began methodically reorganizing and drying things out. Everything was mostly packed back up and were back to normal within about an hour. At that point, we moved the canoe into loading position adjacent to the bank, Busby secured the bow and I loaded up the packs. We’d learned an easy lesson during our swamping situation and on the second time around, we tied things down better, realizing the problems that could potentially develop if one or both of the packs floated away. Once ready, we each carefully climbed in and took our positions, back-paddled out into the current and attentively headed on downstream. We were on the road again, so to speak.
We spent three days floating through the canyon—From Rio Grande Village to the take-out at La Linda. Other than the swamping incident, it was a leisurely and spectacular float. We camped two times along the way and it appeared that it would be an almost perfect trip for the type of group we’d have with us later in the year.
We were pleased with how seamlessly things were going as we floated out of the canyon and entered into the homestretch. I began to think ahead to the end of our trip and the various logistics involved with taking the canoe out, going back the hundred or so miles to Rio Grande Village to get my Scout, driving it back, loading it up and making the 5 or so hour drive back home. It was at about that time, that I realized that during the planning phase of the outing, I’d left that whole end of the canoe trip part out.
About an hour before reaching La Linda, and at about the point in time where I’d come to the realization that we had no real shuttle plan, we floated up on a group of two canoes and four people, who right off the bat mentioned that they were headed to La Linda, just like us. I inquired about their shuttle plans and they mentioned that they had a Suburban parked near the crossing at the Stillwell Store (which was close to La Linda and on the US side) and would be taking it back to Rio Grande Village where they’d left another vehicle. I did the math and realized there was room for me in the Suburban and could ride back with them to get the truck. I was concerned about leaving the canoe and backpacks while doing the shuttle, but figured Busby could stay and guard them, while I made the round trip.
And so, after some chit chat, I asked if they’d give me a ride back to Rio Grande Village, and they agreed. Problem solved, at least for me. We floated on past the savior group, with them agreeing to meet on the US side under the La Linda bridge. Within a few minutes their two canoes disappeared around a turn, behind us. Busby and I soon floated up to the bridge, eased over to the shore and landed.
It’s complicated just why there’s a bridge at that spot. It was built, and built well, in the early 60’s to provide access between the US and a fluorspar mine on the Mexican side. By the time we were there, which was the late 70’s, something of a real town was developing surrounding the mine and on the Mexican side. There was never much of anything on the US side other than miles of open desert.
The mine was in full operational mode as we pulled the canoe up onto the shore. We didn’t want to just leave it out in the open for the whole world to see, but there was no sort of structure or vegetation of any size to hide it behind. So, we just did the best we could and carried it up the bank a hundred feet or so and stuck both it and our backpacks behind a clump of not so big bushes. Just as we were finishing up with that, the two boats of our shuttle friends arrived. Being in something of a desperate, thankful and conciliatory situation, we headed straight back down to the river’s edge and helped them ferry boats and equipment up to the road, where we loaded both their canoes and all of the associated gear into and onto the Suburban.
So, back to our own things…… We’d made the decision not to invite thievery by making our stuff obvious, so had decided to leave it all “sort of” hidden and only part of the way up from the river to the highway. We planned to just haul it the rest of the way up, once I got back. It was mid afternoon by the time the Suburban was loaded and we were ready to go. I told Busby that I’d be back in four hours or so, which meant that if all went well, I’d be back before sunset. And then, we left.
Things did go well with the shuttle, although by the time I got back to La Linda, it was after dark. The round trip had taken a bit longer than anticipated. As I drove up, at first there was no sign of Busby. But once I stopped, got out and yelled for him, he emerged from the thicket that he was hiding in. We hauled the boat and packs up to the road, loaded the scout and by early evening, were turned around and driving toward the mighty small Texas town of Marathon. I looked at the fuel gauge and was comforted to note that we had more than enough gas to get that far, if all went as planned.